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Character building

Years ago, not long after Tony Blair’s first landslide, I was asked by London Weekend Television to co-write a sitcom.

30 June 2010

12:00 AM

30 June 2010

12:00 AM

Years ago, not long after Tony Blair’s first landslide, I was asked by London Weekend Television to co-write a sitcom.

Years ago, not long after Tony Blair’s first landslide, I was asked by London Weekend Television to co-write a sitcom. The idea was to satirise New Labour, and it was cunningly set, not in the Houses of Parliament, but in a flat nearby shared by three Labour MPs. It was a sort of political version of Craggy Island, as in Father Ted. There was the MP who didn’t give a damn and regarded loyalty to the party line as the sign of a wimp — he was loosely based on Bob Marshall-Andrews. There was a young woman loosely based on another Labour MP whom I won’t name; she was a slavish follower of whatever the leadership wanted her to say, do or think. And there was a Father Jack figure, a dotty, elderly member who had fought in the Spanish civil war. Like all successful sitcoms, it was about people who have nothing in common obliged to live together.

We produced several scripts, each one slightly less bad than the one before. Then word came down that Pauline Quirk, of Birds of a Feather, was looking for something edgier. We were told to change the sex of the two principal characters, which was easier than you might think.

There were some good scenes in it and some passable lines. ‘It’s mayhem in the central lobby. A member of the public tried to bite Peter Mandelson!’

‘Did you rush to help him?’

‘No, only senior ministers are allowed to bite Peter.’

We must have done eight or ten versions, but it never even made the pilot stage. I can see why. It lacked several things, such as charm, and warmth, and a plot. Even if you don’t like the characters in a sitcom you have to be interested in them. There has to be a narrative and a resolution; simply depicting the ongoing mess of most people’s lives is not enough. And the jokes have to be organic. Character, character and character are the three most important elements in any comedy, and even if you have written the funniest joke in history you must strike it out if it goes against the character’s character. Or steps outside the world you have created.

These thoughts came to mind while watching the first episode of Rev (BBC2, Monday), about a naïve vicar who comes to work in the inner city and is shocked by the wickedness of man. Now here’s an example of a non-organic gag: one of the Revd Adam Smallbone’s problems is a sinister, bossy archdeacon, who beckons him into his taxi, then abandons him somewhere in the middle of nowhere. ‘Come on, I haven’t got time, I need to get to Chris Hitchens’s book launch…’ Doesn’t really work, does it? A bit inside-Bloomsbury, don’t you think?

The plot, such as it is, involves parents coming to church to get their kids’ names down for the Church school. ‘No more late baptisms! We did the Ingrams boy last summer. He was seven. It was more like an exorcism than a baptism…’ Nearly, but not quite.

The vicar’s wife likes to talk dirty (‘I hate it when you wear your dog collar in bed — it’s as if you’ve got no cock.’ Eh?) There is an improbably evil MP, more Cosa Nostra than duck houses. ‘I’ll bet it’s that posh totty headmistress you carry a rod in your cassock for,’ he says to the vicar. It’s the students’ party punchbowl approach to writing: funny, weird, dirty, off-the-wall? Just pour it in!

When I saw the first Steptoe & Son, originally a one-off on Comedy Playhouse, I wanted there to be a complete series — loads of series — and to watch every one. But I fear I shan’t be bothering with Rev, episode two.

If you have cable, you might try some of the remarkable shows on Sky Arts, 1 and 2. There is lots of rock music, including a documentary about Sun records, but stacks of high culture, too: Anne-Sophie Mutter, Glyndebourne and, if you fancy watching Tristan and Isolde at 8 in the morning, there it is.

I caught The Emperor’s Secret Garden the other day — everything is repeated endlessly, so you can always catch it — about the restoration of a corner of the Forbidden City in Beijing. The emperor was determined to abdicate after 60 years on the throne so as not to outdo his grandfather, who had reigned for 61 years. This is not an excuse that would work with George Osborne. The notion was to create a superlative retirement home for himself.

Ancient craftsmen using ancient crafts reproduced exactly the breathtakingly beautiful materials used 200 years ago. Fascinating, yet unhyped, straightforward and unpretentious.

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